Devil’s claw – a fairly ominous sounding name for an herb that can help deal with joint pain, inflammation and arthritis without the use of NSAIDs (Aspirin, Tylenol) or other medications that may leave unwanted side effects in their wake with prolonged use (like stomach ulcers).
The name devil’s claw comes from the little ‘hooks’ that cover the plant. It is native to South Africa, with it being introduced to a larger population in Europe around the 1900’s.
Traditionally, the devil’s claw has been used to treat pain, inflammation, and joint issues. Topically, it was used in ointments and preparations to help manage and heal skin problems like sores or infections.
Internationally, the popularity of devil’s claw has increased with use in countries such as France, Germany, the U.S. and Canada for addressing lower back pain, arthritic pain, joint pain, and inflammation.
The plant is a perennial, and the roots are what are typically used in the extracts and supplements you can find in health food stores as “devil’s claw.”
Glycosides, and Anti-inflammatory Effects
An important active component of devil’s claw is the ‘glycosides’ – these are naturally present compounds in plants, and are often used in a variety of medications (both herbal and pharmaceutical).
In particular, devil’s claw contains harpagoside – one type of ‘iridoid glycoside’ that is found to have potent anti-inflammatory effects.
What is an iridoid glycoside, exactly?
These compounds in plants act as a natural defense against pathogens, environmental dangers, insects, and herbivores. Iridoid glycosides are found in many different plants.
Harpagoside is just one among the hundreds of these compounds. It is suggested in the medical literature that by inhibiting certain signal pathways in the body (COX-2), this compound in devil’s claw can reduce pain.
It has been shown that inhibitors of these pathways (pharmaceuticals or herbal supplements) can help to treat or address rheumatic health concerns – joint pain, arthritis, inflammation, and back pain. Many devil’s claw extracts will be “standardized” to contain 3% iridoid glycosides or 2% harpagosides.
We recommend taking devil’s claw between meals to ensure optimal bioavailability of the anti-inflammatory compounds, as stomach acid may reduce the potency and efficacy.
Traditional Use to Contemporary Use
Devil’s claw has an established history of use for pain symptoms dating back several hundred years – everything from gout, malaria, myalgia, fibrositis, and lumbago to chest pain, tendonitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis.
In contemporary use, devil’s claw is more commonly prescribed or recommended for lower back and joint pain specifically.
Research may support devil’s claw use in cases of:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Lower Back Pain and Joint Pain
- Chronic Inflammation
Osteoarthritis, Rheumatoid Arthritis – common as we age, and associated with joint pain, devil’s claw has been studied to reduce pain and alleviate symptoms. Multiple studies, including one literature review, determined devil’s claw to be effective at relieving pain, improving mobility, and easing joint use without additional medication.
Another study confirms beneficial use in those with hip or knee arthrosis – displaying devil’s claw can be used to address health concerns from tendinitis, inflammation, and joint pain that isn’t localized to a specific area. In the study, there was a dramatic reduction in pain reported with only two adverse reactions – both digestive upsets.
There are numerous studies using devil’s claw for muscle pain, neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, knee pain, ankle pain, and hip pain.
Lower-Back Pain – Research effectively demonstrates that devil’s claw extract has a potent anti-inflammatory effect, particularly in those with arthritis. Devil’s claw suppressed cytokine production and inflammation, and the glycosides present in devil’s claw were found to be the active therapeutic behind this action.
Any Side-Effects Associated with Devil’s Claw?
Generally, devil’s claw seems to be quite well tolerated in people – although studies have not accounted for long-term use. The primary side effect reported was digestive upset and diarrhea. As devil’s claw can trigger uterine contractions, it is not recommended for those that are pregnant, nor is it recommended for new mothers or young children.
Allergy to devil’s claw is rare, but possible. Those with sensitive stomachs, GERD, ulcers, or IBS would be best suited to avoid taking devil’s claw as it can come with gastrointestinal side effects in sensitive individuals – especially as devil’s claw can increase the production of stomach acids.
As it may lower blood sugar levels, those on medication for diabetes should avoid use or speak with a doctor prior because devil’s claw could trigger a dramatic drop in blood sugar levels when combined with prescription medication.
Can Devil’s Claw Interact with Other Medications?
As devil’s claw is metabolized by the liver via a particular enzyme that is also used to metabolize prescription medications, devil’s claw could possibly interact with these medications – either leading to the medication leaving the body faster (which makes them less effective) or causing them to accumulate and not be properly excreted (leading to a toxic level).
Those on any prescription medications should always contact their health care professional or naturopath – in particular, diabetes medication, anticoagulants, blood thinners, and heart medication should be watched for. These include herbal and homeopathic medications.